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Global roaming charges are among the most painful bills to cover on trips — even for business travellers, who might raise the boss's eyebrow when they present a $1,000 or more phone bill for reimbursement.
Travel SIM cards are a recent innovation, promising to slash global roaming costs. The sales pitch is that you simply need to swap your regular SIM card over for the "global SIM" or "travel SIM" and you'll be able to make calls at a fraction of the cost of your regular mobile network's roaming rates.
For example, while Optus charges $3.50 per minute to call from Hong Kong to Australia on global roaming, one global SIM card provider we looked at — Buzzroam — only charged 41c per minute. The catch is that each brand of global SIM is good for some countries, not others, which means you can't rely on a single brand for all your long term international travel.
How Global SIMs work
Global SIM providers buy airtime from a mobile network elsewhere in the world (usually in a small European country like Estonia or Belgium) that has lower-than-average global roaming rates. It then on-sells to you under a local brand.
The upside, of course, is you can access call rates that you'd otherwise not be able to, but there are several downsides, one of which is that people who want to call you have to dial an international number in Estonia or Belgium. (To put a positive spin on this, at least it shifts some of the burden of cost away from your phone bill to theirs!).
However, some providers — VRoam and BuzzRoam — offer you an Australian landline phone number which your contacts can call, which will then redirect free of charge to your overseas mobile.
You can also divert your Australian mobile number to this Australian landline number, which then rings your global SIM card number, so the roaming is transparent to your contacts. (They still need to use your overseas mobile number if they send you an SMS though.)
The downsides of Global SIMs
There are some caveats to using global SIMs. Call sound quality can be lower than what you get with your Australian carrier's SIM card, because the call has to be connected from Australia to Estonia (or wherever the SIM card provider's home country is), and then on to wherever you are in the world. Global SIM card providers make extensive use of internet telephony to bounce your call across the world at the cheapest rate possible too, which may result in variable sound quality.
Likewise, making a call on a travel SIM is slightly more convoluted than with your Australian SIM card. You have to dial the number you want to call — at which point the network will hang up your call, and then you'll get a call back, connecting you to the number you were trying to call. This is done because the cost of receiving calls while roaming is cheaper than the cost of making calls, which is one of the ways global SIM providers keep the cost down.
This "call back" system sometimes doesn't work — for example, when Australian Business Traveller was travelling in the United States with a SIM card issued by TravelSIM Australia, calls that were placed didn't always ring back as they were supposed to.
Despite these downsides, reports on people's experiences with global SIM cards seem to be more often positive than not. They're to roaming what Skype is to a real phone line — it doesn't always work as reliably as the real thing, but the cost saving is well worth it.
The one big problem with global SIM cards
There is one huge downside to global SIMs and it is becoming ever-more significant: they don't provide cost savings for data use while roaming. In fact, they're often much more expensive for data than Australian telcos' rates.
While Australian telcos generally charge $10-$20/MB of data for casual usage when roaming, and $2-$3/MB if you think ahead and pre-buy a global roaming data pack, the rates charged by travel SIM card providers can be $30-$50/MB.
Considering one email can now be 1-2MB if it has a large picture attached, and Australian smartphone plans typically have 1,000MB of data included for use within Australia, it's easy to see how these rates could cause significant bill shock. 1,000MB of data at $50/MB is $50,000.
Most travel SIM cards are prepaid, so you'd be unlikely to run up a bill this large, but one that we looked at — BuzzRoam — is postpaid (billed to you later) so there is the potential for a big bill.
For this reason, if you want to be able to use data on the go while in a country you're visiting, a much better option is to buy a prepaid SIM card from a local telco there. However, travel SIMs continue to be useful for travellers keen to reduce their phone call costs and use WiFi or hotel internet for their data needs.
How we evaluated travel SIMs
We looked at five global SIM card providers — some marketed primarily in Australia, and some from overseas companies that post SIM cards worldwide, examining their call rates and fine print — as well as minimum up-front costs and shipping fees.
Although the SIM cards work in hundreds of countries, we selected a representative handful of countries that Australian travellers would commonly travel to in order to get a sense of each operator's costs — the UK, USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand.
Best global SIM cards for travelling to...
- Best global SIM card for UK: TravelSIM (why?)
- Best global SIM card for USA: SimCardGlobal Atlas+44 (why?)
- Best global SIM card for Hong Kong: BuzzRoam (why?)
- Best global SIM card for Singapore: BuzzRoam (why?)
- Best global SIM card for New Zealand: SimCardGlobal Atlas+44 (why?)
TravelSIM is the most visible global SIM card brand in Australia, as it is sold in all Australia Post outlets. It was recently the subject of some controversy when it was targeted by a scammer who appeared to have obtained the TravelSIM customer database and targeted those customers with a false discount offer.
The initial cost of buying a TravelSIM is $49.95, which only includes $5 worth of call credit. TravelSIM cards come with an Estonian (+372) mobile number. TravelSIM does not provide you with an additional Australian number for people to call you on.
UK: roughly competitive with other global SIM card providers on its pricing for calls made in the UK, at 42c per minute, whether calling landlines inside or outside the UK. However, it is free to receive calls, which is better than all the other providers.
USA: ouch. TravelSIM costs $2.68 per minute to receive a call in the US and $3.10 per minute to call within the US or back to Australia. This is actually more expensive than Telstra and Optus in some aspects — for example on Optus, it's only $1.45/min to receive a call in the US; on Telstra it's $2/min. This makes TravelSIM the most expensive global SIM card provider we looked at for usage in the USA.
Hong Kong: free to receive calls. 59c per minute to make calls within Hong Kong or back to Australia. Good pricing, beaten in some aspects only by BuzzRoam (41c per minute), although BuzzRoam charges 8c per minute to receive calls.
Singapore: 61c/min to receive a call; $1.35 to make a call within Singapore or to Australia. Again, cheaper than the other global SIM providers except for BuzzRoam (41c per minute), although BuzzRoam charges 8c per minute to receive calls.
New Zealand: 28c/min to receive a call; 74c/min to make a call within NZ or to Australia. Beaten only by SimCardGlobal for making calls (they charge only US$0.61 per minute).
Conclusion: TravelSIM is good if you are going to the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore or New Zealand, but the worst choice if you're going to the USA.
Further info: TravelSIM.net.au
GeoSIM cards are sold by a UK company, and have the interesting capability of having both a UK and a US phone number for the service. The upfront SIM card cost is £14.99 (A$23.69) including £5 (A$7.90) call credit, or for the card with the UK+US number, £29.99 (A$47.41) including £5 (A$7.90) call credit. The cost of postage to Australia is £8.50 (A$13.44). There's an £8.50 (A$13.44) annual fee, which will whittle down your credit gradually.
UK: Free to receive calls, £0.32/min (51c) to make them within the UK, or £0.27/min (43c) to call back to Australia. Best of the global SIM providers in terms of free incoming calls; similar to other providers for outgoing call costs.
USA: Ouch. £1.37/min ($2.17) to receive calls; £1.21/min ($1.91) to call within the US or £1.25/min ($1.98) to call Australia. The cost to receive calls is actually higher than what's charged by Optus and Telstra ($1.45/$2.00 per minute respectively) and Optus is cheaper for making calls within the USA. (However, call rates are similar to other global SIM card providers for making calls in the USA.)
Hong Kong: £0.48/min (76c) to receive calls; £0.70/min ($1.11) to make them within Hong Kong or £0.68/min ($1.07) to call Australia. Middling value compared to other providers. BuzzRoam is best for Hong Kong with its US$0.41/min rate to make calls, even though you have to pay 8c per minute to receive them.
Singapore: £0.68/min ($1.07) to receive calls; £0.85/min ($1.34) to make calls within Singapore or to Australia. Again, middling value compared to other providers. BuzzRoam is best for Hong Kong with its US$0.41/min rate to make calls, even though you have to pay 8c per minute to receive them.
New Zealand: £0.25/min (40c) to receive calls, £0.52/min (82c) to make calls within NZ, or £0.53/min (84c) to call Australia. TravelSIM and SIMCardGlobal have better rates for New Zealand.
Conclusion: GeoSIM is exceptionally good if you are travelling to the UK, adequate if you're going to Hong Kong, Singapore or New Zealand, but very bad value if you are travelling to the USA.
Further info: globalsimcard.co.uk
SimCardGlobal's Atlas+44 SIM card is sold by a US company, but the SIM cards are from a UK carrier and have a UK +44 phone number, as well as a US mobile number if you use the SIM card in the US. The upfront SIM card cost is US$73 ($74.14) which includes US$25 ($25.39) worth of calling credit. Postage to Australia is US$17 ($17.27). The SIM card will expire after 12 months, taking your credit with it, if you don't recharge within the year.
UK: US$0.10/min (10c) to receive calls; US$0.52/min (53c) to make calls within the UK or US$0.39/min (40c) to call Australia. In terms of the cost of receiving calls, TravelSIM and GeoSIM are superior for the UK with their free incoming calls. Calls out of the UK are a tad cheaper with TravelSIM and BuzzRoam.
USA: Free to receive calls; US$0.57/min (58c) to make calls within the USA, or US$0.47/min (48c) to call back to Australia. This makes it by far the cheapest SIM card we looked at for use in the USA. The fact that you can receive calls free of charge is extraordinary, considering Americans using local carriers even have to pay to receive calls there. USA is a costly country for traditional global roaming, too — Optus charges $3.50 per minute to call back to Australia, for example.
Hong Kong: US$0.98/min ($1) to receive calls; US$1.34/min ($1.36) to call within Hong Kong, or US$1.32 ($1.34) to call Australia. More expensive than all the other global SIMs we reviewed for use in Hong Kong.
Singapore: US$1.33/min ($1.35) to receive a call in Singapore; US$1.66 ($1.69) to call within Singapore, or back to Australia. More expensive than all the other global SIMs we reviewed for use in Singapore.
New Zealand: US$0.29/min (29c) to receive calls in NZ; US$0.61/min (61c) to make calls within NZ, US$0.62/min (62c) to call back to Australia. The cheapest of all the SIM cards we looked at for use in NZ.
Conclusion: Fantastic for use in the USA or New Zealand; OK for use in the UK, but poor for use in Hong Kong or Singapore.
Further info: simcardglobal.com
Vroam is an Australian-based global SIM card provider. Its mobile numbers are issued by a UK-based telco but you can divert your Australian mobile to an Australian-based phone number, which then on-forwards to the Vroam number at no cost, so people in Australia don't have to call the UK number. They will still need to use the UK number if they want to SMS you, though.
Vroam is unusual in that it charges a $1.50 per day SIM card "rental" fee, and also requires a $100 deposit for the SIM card, which you forfeit if you lose the card. There's also a $15 postage fee per order, which is a bit surprising for a company posting something so small within Australia.
However, it does have the advantage of being the only post-paid service we looked at, which means you won't unexpectedly run out of credit.
UK: 30c/min to receive calls; $1.10/min to make calls within the UK or back to Australia. The most expensive of all the global SIMs we looked at, and in fact Telstra is a touch cheaper to call within the UK on global roaming, at $1.09/min.
USA: 30c/min to receive calls; $1.95 to make calls within the US or back to Australia. Good rate for receiving calls — bettered only by SimCardGlobal's free incoming calls in the USA. However, SimCardGlobal is significantly better for outgoing call costs in the USA as well, at only 48c/min.
Hong Kong: 80c/min to receive calls; $1.10/min to make calls within Hong Kong or back to Australia. Among the most expensive of the global SIMs we looked at — the only more expensive one for Hong Kong was SimCardGlobal. Buzzroam is much better, with 8c/min to receive calls, and only 41c/min to make them.
Singapore: $1/min to receive calls; $1.10/min to call within Singapore or back to Australia. Buzzroam is much better, with 8c/min to receive calls, and only 41c/min to make them.
New Zealand: 80c/min to receive calls; $1.40/min to call within NZ or back to Australia. SimCardGlobal is much better, with its 29c/min to receive calls and 61c/min to make them.
Conclusion: We can't recommend VRoam based on price; every country we looked at had cheaper options with other providers. It does have the advantage of being post-paid, which may be an advantage for corporate users who are not so price sensitive, but its many ancillary fees and charges (daily SIM card rental fee being the primary one) detract further from the overall offering.
Further information: vroam.com.au
Buzzroam is a Hong Kong-based company providing SIM cards issued by a Belgian mobile network. However, it provides an Australian phone number free of charge that your contacts can call, which redirects to your mobile wherever it is in the world, so the calling party doesn't have to pay international call rates. You can also divert your regular mobile number to this number (at standard call rates, though for many people this will be included in their calling cap allowance at no additional cost).
The upfront cost for a Buzzroam SIM card starts at US$35 ($35.55) which includes US$10 ($10.16) calling credit. Postage is only US$4 ($4.06) to anywhere in the world, including Australia.
UK: US$0.08/min (8c) to receive calls, or US$0.41/min (41c) to make them within the UK or back to Australia. TravelSIM is better with its free incoming calls in the UK, but its outgoing call rates are comparable at 42c/min.
USA: This is the one country where Buzzroam is not competitive with other global SIMs: it costs US$1.64/min ($1.67) to receive calls in the US or US$1.97/min ($2.00) to make them. It is bettered by SimCardGlobal's free incoming calls in the USA and outgoing call costs of only 48c/min.
Hong Kong: US$0.08/min (8c) to receive calls, or US$0.41/min (41c) to make them within the UK or back to Australia. The cheapest of all the global SIM cards we looked at for Hong Kong.
Singapore: US$0.08/min (8c) to receive calls, or US$0.41/min (41c) to make them within the UK or back to Australia. The cheapest of all the global SIM cards we looked at for Singapore.
New Zealand: US$0.56 (57c) to receive calls, or US$0.89/min (90c) to make them within NZ or back to Australia. SimCardGlobal is better, with its 29c/min to receive calls and 61c/min to make them.
Conclusion: Buzzroam is excellent for travelling to the UK, Hong Kong and Singapore; OK for the UK and poor for the USA and New Zealand.
Further info: Buzzroam